We will be sending troops into ground combat in Iraq. It’s just a matter of when. I predicted long ago on Military.com that after our withdrawal from Iraq we would return just like MacArthur did to the Philippines. Unlike the Philippines, it would be to a less friendly Iraq with less friendly Iraqis, in a much worse situation where we may actually suffer defeat.
This is the first part of a two part essay that will lay out how we got to the current state of affairs, what intervention approaches are being considered and how our failure to identify an end state cripples our efforts. The second part will address our national interest in the region, what we should do, why we won’t, what we will do and regrettably our dithering in the region will lead us to an even more precarious future.
Our return to Iraq will start with increased airstirkes and an increasing numbers of advisers. Just yesterday the President announced an additional deployment of 350 troops to protect embassy personnel from the ISIS threat. Of course these are not “combat troops” as the number of troops in Iraq hovers around 1500. They won’t be enough but before we delve into military approaches we have to revisit how we arrived at the current situation to understand the larger picture and complexity of the region without the media and political spin that has largely misinformed the American public.
How did we get to where we are today?
It is very important to understand how the current situation has come about. Only by knowing how a problem arises can one avoid to repeat it in the future and potentially find important clues on how to address the current situation. Using water on an oil fire actually spreads it so it’s important to determine what kind of fire one has before trying to put it out.
The last critical decision node that lead us to our current situation is the catastrophic failure to establish a residual force in Iraq after 2011. This event was aggravated by the administration’s failure to enforce a self-proclaimed “red line” in Syria and willful neglect of growing radical Islam and Iranian influence in the region. These decisions have created the conditions that have produced the largest concentration of foreign radical Islamic fighters since the Crusades. An “Islamic State” that today controls more territory and more money than Al Qaeda ever did and according to many is a bigger threat than AQ was before 911. This chain of events has also allowed Iran to deploy its military forces and tighten its grasp on Syria and Iraq to a degree unseen since the Islamic Republic of Iran’s founding.
The US residual force was a goal alternately pursued and rejected by the administration. Common knowledge and the often repeated narrative places the blame for failing to negotiate a residual force exclusively on Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al- Maliki. No doubt Maliki as Iraq’s leader bears some special responsibility for Iraq’s situation but the simplistic and politically convenient narrative sheds no light on outside players and most importantly US leaders who we have elected to lead and protect the nation and its citizens.
General Jack Keane was the Vice Chief for the US Army during the residual force negotiation. He had visibility on the military and political aspects to the situation as well as personal relationships with many of the key players and intelligence issues necessary to fully understand the dynamics involved. Briefly stated, the Iraqis as a whole wanted a residual force. It was in everyone’s interest, the Sunnis wanted an honest broker to protect their diminished power in the new Government. The Kurds always had a positive relationship with the US and America’s continued presence facilitated their new found semi-autonomous participation in Iraq and nationalist Shia understood the US provided a bulwark against Iranian adventurism.
The US military’s position was it needed a 20-30k man force in Iraq to further train Iraqi military forces, conduct select counter-terror operations against AQ, provide certain military capabilities as Iraq developed its own (e.g. control Iraqi airspace, provide ISR capability etc.) and assist Iraqi democracy to take hold (e.g. limit Iranian influence and blunt non-democratic tendencies in Iraq’s new government).
The Administration eventually whittled this down to 3000 troops and required the “status of forces agreement” (a SOFA provides legal protections to US military forces deployed in other countries) be approved by the Iraqi parliament that was heavily influenced by the Shia militia, an Iranian-trained, equipped and influenced force. The administration insisted on this course of action despite the fact that there were other avenues to enact a SOFA agreement.
According to Gen Keane, the Iraqis realized that 3k troops weren’t enough to execute their stated missions but enough to inflame the Iranians. Instead of a robust US military to help Iraq chart a course, we were going to provide a force that would just incite Iranian adventurism and be barely enough to provide security for themselves. Iraqi leadership came to the realization that such a small force was of no benefit to the nation.
The administration simply wanted to end US involvement in Iraq at any cost. It would then be able to repeatedly spike the ball as ending the Iraqi adventure and stating mission accomplished in the upcoming national election. The media didn’t ask questions and the left sure didn’t. The right voiced concerns securing the advances dearly paid for, giving Iraq time to develop democratic traditions, maintaining a firm grip on AQ. They were drowned out and all those predictions came true. For further insight into Gen Keane’s largely untold perspective I recommend the minutes from the March 21, 2012 Houses’s Committee of Foreign Affairs hearing or this short Washington Post story.
The same story is documented by Josh Rogin of ForeignPolicy.com in his essay. Administration sources told him the demand that troop immunity go through the Iraqi Parlaiment was State Department lawyers’ decision. Other options included putting the remaining troops on the embassy’s diplomatic rolls automatically giving them immunity.
From Dexter Filkins’ seminal essay in the New Yorker, “What We Left Behind” one finds even more.
“At one meeting, Maliki said that he was willing to sign an executive agreement granting the soldiers permission to stay, if he didn’t have to persuade the parliament to accept immunity. The Obama Administration quickly rejected the idea. “The American attitude was: Let’s get out of here as quickly as possible,” said Sami al-Askari, an Iraqi member of parliament.
Note, this is exactly the type of agreement we presently have in place and protecting over a 1000 US troops in Iraq.
Filkins goes into great detail documenting Maliki’s disastrous policies for example, “Less than twenty-four hours after the last convoy of American fighters left, Maliki’s government ordered the arrest of Vice-President Tariq al-Hashemi, the highest-ranking Sunni Arab.” Hashemi fled and American officials did not protest. Convicted in absentia and sentenced to death three months later, he remains in exile.
Filkins’ essay goes on to document Maliki’s comprehensive and inexorable alienation of Sunni & Kurdish Iraqis including the sacking of military officers and turning the intelligence apparatus into a Shia tool. It is required reading to understand the period after US troops left Iraq as well as understand Nouri al-Maliki. Simultaneously with Maliki’s effort to centralize power, a secular revolution gripped Syria. A revolution that was slowly and predictably undermined by many of the same Radical Islamists we fought in Iraq and Assad himself who released Islamists who promptly fought against him and further strengthened Islamist groups. The US’s largely vocal but almost completely invisible support of secular Syrian rebels just facilitated ISIS growth and credibility. ISIS only proceeded to increase in size and influence especially after America’s credibility evaporated with the transparent “Red Line”, a promise to take action if Syria moved let alone used chemical weapons. Into this influence void stepped officially and unofficialy middle east money to support the only forces showing any success against Assad and still the US waited. Even the fall of Mosul and Fallujah expensively paid for with American blood, did not propel the US into action.
Unrealized by most, was how much worse the geopolitical situation was becoming as Iran exerted more influence in the region. Iranian forces and assets were deeply involved in Assad’s crackdown. Iran has sent thousands of troops to fight in Syria, established an air bridge over Iraq and even training Assad’s fighters in Iran. There is no doubt the presence of residual force would have eliminated Iraq becoming a transit corridor for Iranian influence into Syria prolonging the war, fostering sectarian divisions and allowing the Syrian revolt to be subverted. Remember, democratic institutions pose an existential threat to Iran (as well as many countries in the region). The powers that be don’t want their citizens to become aware of democratic approaches to governing.
The failure to establish a residual force demonstrates a continuing inability by the US to look at Iraq as it is and not as one wishes it to be. It also tells the cautionary tale of how playing domestic politics in the international arena can makes the US much more vulnerable in the future. IF ISIS is successfully defeated, the same divisive issues will remain in Iraq and continue to plague us if unaddressed.
So today we have a deeply fractured Iraq. ISIS and Radical Islamists have created a domain that features the largest concentration of foreign Radical Islamist fighters in modern history. It continues to threaten Kurdish and Shia Iraq as it tightens its grip on Sunni Iraq and emplaces Sharia in effect. 190,000 Syrians have died. Assad remains in power of even a more deeply fractured nation which threatens the stability of Jordan, Turkey and Israel. Iran is at its strongest in influence and military strength since the Iranian revolution.
Why “partners” and airstrikes won’t work alone and how US ground troops is the only way to secure success.
Admittedly, my premise is that ISIS must be destroyed and success requires regimes friendly to US interests. “Contained” is a supremely delicate balancing act assuming we intimately and always know ISIS’ capability and always act in just the right manner to obstruct it. There is no end date to this effort. This is a recipe for a nasty surprise. Helping a nation that isn’t friendly to oneself is just bringing up the tiger that will eventually attack you or yours.
There’s a way to intervene and a way not to. The key is stating (and later resourcing) an achievable and correct end state. Get that wrong and you’re doomed to pay too much, do it again or create circumstances for a follow on threat. Any intervention without a specific stated end state is just pabulum for the masses asking for action.
There are a slew of intervention approaches being suggested. Drafting “regional partners” and/or an expanded air campaign are the most often mentioned. Neither will satisfy long term US national security needs.
Drafting regional partners as an option falls apart under a rudimentary level of questioning. I’m not against a coalition approach. I wholeheartedly support it. I’m against delegating leadership or relying on others to do the heavy lifting as has been customary of this administration. All one has to do is look towards Libya to see the folly of that approach. I’ll occupy myself with the powers that border Syria & Iraq. They are Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Israel, Lebanon, Turkey & Iran. Israel is likely the strongest militarily and closest in alignment to US goals but any public involvement by Israel in any Mideast issue raises more issues than it solves. Any solution requiring Israel’s public involvement is doomed for failure which is why the US petitioned Israel so strongly during Desert Storm to not react to Saddam’s Scuds. Middle East countries will not work with Israel.
Lebanon is a mess. They are so weak they can’t keep Iran from operating its terror tool Hezbollah. Lebanon could plunge into civil war in a heartbeat. More importantly it is incapable of projecting force beyond its borders. It has to rely on outside aid to equip its Army which has its hands full in managing the status quo.
Jordan, while not home to an outside terror group is in a precarious situation. Palestinian refugees almost succeeded in overthrowing the monarchy in 1970 and the influx of Syrian refugees is severely stressing the nation. Outside ventures would not be wise and even while possessing a pretty competent military, Jordan’s ability to project and sustain military power beyond its borders are questionable while it may continue to serve as a special operations base as it has since the invasion of Iraq.
Saudi Arabia while possessing a strong military has a questionable ability to project that military power because it relies so heavily on contractor support. More importantly though, what are Saudi Arabia’s goals in respect to ISIS, to Iraq? How do these goals relate to the Saudi’s official support of Wahhabism and unofficial support for radical Islamist groups like ISIS and others? Would an Iran dominated Iraq allow Saudi forces to operate in its borders? It seems to me that the questions and potential of working at cross goals makes it doubtful that Saudi Arabia will conduct combat operations in Iraq.
Turkey does have a strong military and the capability to project that power into Syria and Iraq though it may distract it from its border with Russia. It is also a member of NATO which further enhances its capability to influence events in Syria & Iraq. Of all the potential partners that could be brought to bear in Iraq and Syria Turkey is one of the best options but it has a history of oppressing Kurdish minorities who may see an opportunity if Turkey extends itself too far. Turkey is also suspected of having regional leadership ambitions which conflict with Iran.
There is another nation that has demonstrated the capability to project military power and influence the situation in Syria and Iraq. Iran has deployed troops into both countries and trained and supported militia in both nations. Iran may be an effective counter to ISIS though it has not been able to roll back ISIS gains in Syria. The question is what Syria & Iraq would look like after ISIS is defeated and what position Iran will be in to influence the peace. Considering Iran’s record for supporting international terror and positions against the Little Satan and Great Satan (Israel and the US respectively) I would posit they are not the partner we are looking for. Even the Soviet Union of pre-WWII did not openly antagonize the West like Iran does. We should also bear that realization in the forefront of our minds as we consider airstrikes.
So to consolidate the “partners” approach, all but Turkey have the requisite capability to defeat ISIS and the Turkey option is fraught with risk considering Turkey’s aspirations. A coalition of Arab states like we had during Desert Storm is a very real positive from a public relations perspective but during Desert Storm our Arab partners had a primarily symbolic role while the US provided leadership and the overwhelming majority of military capability.
The next often promoted approach is airstrikes. Employing airpower is not without impact but airpower alone has never achieved decisive results on its own. History is full of examples of airpower that didn’t defeat an enemy without the employment of a competent ground force or threat of one as happened in Yugoslavia. The threats in Cambodia, Laos, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia persisted or persist with no end in sight despite substantial air campaigns. I marvel that no one even discusses the historical record in popular media. I guess we really don’t teach history anymore in our schools and the media is failing at the most basic level to exercise its role as an honest arbiter.
The reason airpower can never be decisive on its own is that despite the saying that “any problem can be solved with the appropriate amount of high explosive” is the enemy can always find a way to avoid air power. Airpower, unlike troops on the ground, is not persistent, nor can it develop comprehensive targeting data on its own. This may come to pass eventually with drones and more technology but today drones are limited in payload, endurance and sensors that can’t see through stone or divulge what’s in men’s minds. Troops on the ground can force one to leave covered and concealed positions with maneuver, or if brute force is necessary, kick down a door or root out a cave. Troops can move around or through walls and interrogate humans. Airpower cannot do that. If airpower was capable of finding and killing every enemy there would have been no need to invade Europe or the multiple islands of the Pacific in WWII. This is the fundamental truth about airpower that is repeatedly ignored. Airpower does provide the least risk to our forces. It satisfies the emotional need to “do something!” and provides great video footage. Airpower is also exceedingly attractive to technologically enamored societies like ours, but airpower often makes promises it fails to keep claiming victory later after the ground forces have completed the mission.
Finally, at the most basic level, employing airpower requires targeting intelligence especially against irregular forces where hitting the wrong targets potentially creates more enemies. Our decision to not assist the FSA in Syria or maintain a residual force in Iraq results in a great big hole in our targeting ability. We’ve conducted a little over 100 airstrikes in Iraq over 25 days. That averages to about four airstrikes a day…
What is critical to any intervention approach is the end state must address the peace afterwards and the most effective and sure way to influence the peace is to have US troops on the ground. Assume for a second everything I said about airpower’s effectiveness is wrong. It’s not the US that will reap benefits from hitting ISIS with airstrikes while it’s Iranian troops that are on the ground… The recent removal of Maliki is a promising development for Iraq but it is a baby step and one easily reversed especially considering Iran’s significant and growing ground presence in Iraq. Iran understands the importance of troops on the ground. They’ve sent thousands to Iraq including most recently, tanks.
The bottom line is it would be VERY bad for us to attack in Syria or expand airstrikes in Iraq without a US ground presence. Result – doing Iran’s work for them. We just replace ISIS with Iran and its foreign policy goals. Iran and the US’s interests are diametrically opposed unless one actually believes that Iran is the only nation in history that won’t follow its stated objectives. Some actually make that case.
The best solution would be to find a way to put Iraq back on track in developing an Iraqi democratic tradition and help the now few secular Syrian rebels. Sadly, those options disappeared when we failed to leave a residual force and never supplied or trained the FSA. No one wants to admit that we would have to start from scratch in getting the Sunni, Kurds and Shia talking again and to try to govern together. Bad decisions and inaction have consequences. One shouldn’t be surprised about having to pay thousands of dollars for a new engine if you never change the oil because you didn’t want to spend the money or take the time when those were options. There is no way to defeat ISIS or fix Iraq on the cheap with a pure military solution and especially one just limited to airstrikes. The Special Forces evaluation teams we’ve sent to Iraq agree.
The New York Times reported that the draft assessment prepared by our special forces and conventional subject matter experts we sent to Iraq warns that Iraqi forces loyal to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki are so dependent on the Shiite militias, as well as advisers from Iran’s paramilitary Quds Force that American advisers could face safety risks if they are assigned to train certain units.
Other conclusions in the draft assessment reported by the NYT state Iraqi forces may not be able to defend Baghdad if the militants attacked in strength. The report concluded that on their own, Iraq forces won’t be capable of reversing ISIS gains, a conclusion reiterated by chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey.
Some will react to my assessment with an instinctual knee jerk reaction that US troops aren’t needed or shouldn’t be sent. They are deluding themselves or don’t have the moral courage to admit that from their world view, a strategic setback for the US is desirable. I caution the reader to carefully consider the facts and the historical precedents that buttress my case and not submit to emotional decision making. The future costs to our nation will be much more expensive when we bow to emotional reasoning now. For some, this is unavoidable. I hope I can reach the others who don’t decide how to live because some things are hard.
I have described how our failure to leave a residual force in Iraq has led to a worse situation in the region. A lesson we should take to heart in Afghanistan and we should deeply reflect on in considering how to secure the gains that should be the goals of any intervention. It is also a lesson on how playing domestic politics on the international scene result in paying twice for ground we paid for in blood.
I have explained that most regional partners are not up to the task of destroying ISIS and that the US delegates responsibility for the region at great peril considering how successful Iran has been in expanding its influence in the region using subversion and the barrel of a gun.
Airstrikes, while emotionally satisfying, are not a strategy and cannot destroy ISIS. Ground troops remove many options for the enemy though the cost is the most expensive which is why they should never be employed haphazardly or without clear goals or, as I have stated, an end state.
Everyone wishes Iraq would sort itself out, get back on track with the Democratic experiment we paid so dearly for. The Iraqis paid dearly also. Maybe Iraq’s new leadership might be able to re-enlist the Kurds and Sunnis to participate in Iraqi governing and satisfy the Shia need for control or revenge, but before they do that they’ll have to retake Iraq and they aren’t going to do that without assistance. The Iranians are willing and that story won’t end well.
In part II I’ll lay out our continuing national security interest in the region, what we should do, why we won’t, what we will do and the precarious future which will likely lead to a large scale intervention or worse.
END PART I